My yoga career as a template

child pose eliza snow istockHave you had a lot of satisfaction in your career?  A sense of mastery?  The ability to make things happen?  Those are questions I wonder about, for myself and others.  Mostly because I have not found such attributes in abundance, at least not in my office jobs.  But I did experience them as a yoga teacher.

If you are imagining me as that advanced student, as master teacher demonstrating extra-advanced poses in my trendy yoga wear, let that picture go.  It’s not applicable.  Here is the real story:  I ordered a couple of half-price yoga pants online, incorporated some comfy tie dye t-shirts, and went looking for gigs.  I applied to various institutions, a recreation center, the local hospital, a corporation, and a drug court.  I was inflexible, shy, and naïve about yoga.  But I loved it and had to do it.

Teaching was excruciating for me for several years.  Sitting before a group of people and conveying something I barely understood was uncomfortable to say the least.   But darn if it wasn’t compelling, and I listened to feedback and learned.  I felt my way through, literally, in my body.  In this job I could move, demonstrate, engage physically, mentally, and spiritually.  At the same time, my yoga teacher told me that people would just be grateful to be led through a class, and her comment helped me relax.

I developed a sense of myself and a sense of my vocation as a yoga teacher.  I saw ways to integrate yoga into institutions, and I became a good promoter.  I felt motivated from within, energized by my work.  As I ventured into various organizations, I was not discouraged that administrators knew little about yoga, instead I became a translator between the institution and the practice, the fitness world and the mindfulness world.

About eight years in I became really good at teaching yoga, something I attribute to having lived and absorbed it and to the inspiration of a teacher who taught me what I most needed to learn.   From her I learned that yoga was more about undoing patterns and waking up, and I was able to guide people through that process.  For me, it was about educating the body, mind, and soul.

In my career I learned many skills, like teaching methods, communication, promotion, translation, conveying material through multiple modalities.  I used many of my strengths and learned to work better with my weaknesses.

In time I changed and began to explore the idea of educating about integrative medicine.  For a while I lost my bearings.  Yoga didn’t seem like a resume building skill, and my other skills had faded into the background.  Forgetting about the success I’d had and the many folks who expressed gratitude for my classes, I felt “unmarketable.”

And yet it is my experience with yoga that is coming back to me now and informing me in a visceral way.  I realize that yoga has taught me what was most important in my overall career.  I remember that feeling of vocation, of commitment, of mission, and I remember the willingness to barrel ahead even though I had little experience in a field.  I know that I can come up with my own proposals, contact folks who might need my skills and knowledge, translate my heart-felt sense of contributing to my stress-ridden society.

I sense the fertile ground available to me and my opportunity to create something new.  And I continue to do my own yoga and meditation practice so that deeper wisdom and steadiness might accompany me on the path.

Magical connections occur, a sense of possibility surfaces.  I feel my muscles, my conviction, my confidence in my ability and my right to assert myself in the world and offer what I’ve got.  If I do not fit in a particular job, that’s okay, I still have my mission, my contribution to make, work to do, and spiritual lessons to learn.

To sum it up, yoga gave me a sense of myself (this being who knows the connection to mind and body), it gave me some inner knowing and some muscle, and it gave me a bridge to the medical and mental health realms which are so in need of change.  It provided me with connections to individuals that educated and supported me, and it gave me a meaningful role in my community.  When I feel like there is a hole in my “career” experience, I remember how satisfied I was, how much I grew, and how much I gave.  I know I built new bridges, and I know I provided something there, under the radar of the institutions, that woke people up a little.  If not to spiritual or physical mastery, to just knowing their bodies a bit better, knowing how to move more easily, knowing how to be embodied on the earth for this short time we’re given.

When I was a yoga student with the right teacher, I felt like I was getting the single most important education of my life.  I hope some of my students felt that way, and I hope I don’t forget what I learned.

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When the shell cracks

I’ve been wrestling with my job in a disability center since I started it a year and a half ago.  Once I went in to the boss to quit, which led to a surprisingly good outcome:  She clarified my job description for me and then for the staff, which seemed keen on having me do parts of their jobs.  But I continued to struggle with defining my tasks for each day.  All the while I’ve squirmed with my role in a free-form environment with a complex clientele.  To top it off I felt a disconnect between my identity and the role.

Yet this complex situation has taught me more than the jobs that felt like a natural fit.   I’ve learned to stand up for myself, to really assert what will and won’t work for me, and I’ve learned to let go of my ego, my previous way of defining myself.  Sound paradoxical?  Yes, and true, and the beauty in the paradox is more evident to me through the help of yoga and mindfulness meditation.

Here is one good lesson:  When new to the job, I met with three women working in similar positions at an organization in a town nearby.  These folks have created elaborate social activities for their constituents.  They go out to restaurants, take vans of people on weekend trips.  Made me want to run the other way if those things are part of my job.  But I’ve built my program with smaller support groups, based around assistive technology and other topics, leaving room for some sharing.  I started a yoga class.  And I carved out some time to retreat to the computer for record keeping, newsletter creation, and website management.

I’ve been able to find ways to serve that are compatible with my more introverted temperament.  Instead of den mother, I am behind-the-scenes facilitator.  I water flowers, set out recycling, demonstrate use of assistive devices.  I participate in community gatherings and parties through setting up, clearing up, socializing.  I connect more deeply with those in my yoga class.

I watch myself respond; I honor my nature; I let go of some resistance.  And the environment accommodates me.  Whatever this job is in terms of career development, I cannot yet say, but in terms of spiritual development it is filled with fruit.

This strange little job has cracked me open while yoga and meditation kept me grounded.  I have been witness to the lives of those with disabilities, and I have been part of a community sharing experiments on healing, on living with limitations, on finding our roles in the community.  It is an unusual job in a unique environment.  I love my alone time as much as ever, but I also love this way of being connected.  I love having the chance to experiment.

It’s been very uncomfortable and rewarding at the same time.  I move out in the world, and yet I am authentically quiet and gentle, finding the background when I need it.  The stories I tell myself shift; my experience in the world transforms; my body and mind soften; my feet stand steady; and my heart engages.  That yoga and mindfulness practice has taught me how to feel, how to open, how to free fall:  It is pretty smart stuff.

Nun turned writer

When I need encouragement on the job front, I think about Karen Armstrong, the former nun turned religion writer and tolerance advocate.  Her story inspires me for three reasons: She was on a very unique career path, she experienced some dramatic dead ends (one might say failures), and she was a late but prolific bloomer.  Her first life/work choice, that of nun, was made in her teens and was heavily influenced by social awkwardness and feeling out of step with peers.  And running through her story, undiagnosed (until she was middle aged), but perhaps influencing her perceptions and choices, was the fact that she had epilepsy.

I’m very struck by the fact that she took such a large step at a young age to join a convent, and then left it seven years later.  The fact that she felt painfully awkward, that she suffered in the convent, and that she embarked on a very uncertain path when she left, highlights her enduring courage through challenge.  In addition, her tale and the instances of “failure” make me view the concept of failure differently and to see the education, guidance, and shaping such endings or changes of course provide. I am encouraged that she found her stride, and her most successful career, when approaching 50.

Ultimately, her experience as a nun, the decision to leave the convent, her education at Oxford (which she did not complete), her disappointing attempt at teaching and frustrated foray into religious broadcasting, led her to the decision to write an ambitious treatise, The History of God, in her late 40s, against the advice of her agent.  In reading her book The Spiral Staircase, I experienced with her the struggle, the disappointment, and the search (not always conscious) to locate her sense of self, her path, and her work.  Today she applies all she has learned as a person, about religion, and about spirituality, and writing to communicate the commonality of the Golden Rule amongst religions and to advocate for acceptance and mutual respect among these religions.

I know of no other story that bolsters me so well.  When I think of my gentleness, introversion, and awkwardness in my earlier years, of my interest in spirituality and consciousness change, I am encouraged by her story and the fruition of her talent and life lessons.  When I think of pulling one’s gifts, knowledge, and motivation together at 50, I benefit from her example.

Karen Armstrong is known as an eminent scholar with an original mind:  She won a TED prize in 2008 for her work promoting religious tolerance.  But her biographical writings remind us of her difficult journey on the path of developing her gifts.  Her story reminds us that each of us can learn from the guidance our failures and dead ends provide, that we can find our unique contribution to make from our experience, passion, and eccentricity.  We can serve as engaged and whole beings, alive in our response to the universe around us.

Do you have an enduring passion?  Have you developed your thought and perception in a subject or art and embraced those apparent shortcomings that at one time mortified you?  Do you have a “wild hair” of an idea that could just become the basis for your fulfilling work?  I like to think that we can give space to this process, talk with one another, and unfold, to the benefit of each other and even the earth itself.

After the Fall

I fall.  And fall.  And fall.  I land on ledges during this fall, and I rest, comfortable for awhile.  But then I fall some more.  I wonder where it ends.  Will this fall lead into a wide gentle river that delivers me to a riverbank, or will the river itself turn treacherous and throw me into a rock?  It seems both may be true.

I speak of my career.  I have been seeking something elusive, and yet a theme emerges, possibilities exist, and I open my arms, let go and keep falling, or should I say floating, praying I will come to that riverbank, edge of a grassy meadow.  In moving from DC to Colorado, I shed a way of thinking about career and about mental and physical healthcare, my primary vocational interests.  In studying yoga, yoga therapy, ayurveda, hakomi, and reiki, I have learned a new view of these things.  In working in holistic health and then a disability center, I have seen alternative models, place where natural, communal, and integrative care are the norms.  In living near Boulder, I have encountered others who live, work, and study in these alternative models.

The theme I speak of, the common thread in my circuitous career, is this exploration of alternative perspectives on health and mental health.  Now that I move into my 50s (still feeling 30, mind you), I wonder if my path will converge with emerging ways of doing business.  But really, when I think about it, it already has.  Where do I take root?  How do I find like-minded colleagues and work together to make this new model a reality?

Recently I was invited to apply for a position that lets me do just that.  And if the job does not materialize, it is time to step out and create my own.  Along the way I’ll land and commune with others, and one day I’ll settle on that riverbank with them in a concerted effort, enjoying the work until we truly fall away.

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